This note is being written on a silent January morning—the first day of 2018. It appears, save a few oddballs still slobbering drunk outside, most people have turned in to sleep. It is now dark, and silent outside. But as usual, this is the kind of darkness and silence that precedes every morning, before the sun rises.
Unlike most other days though, today, people will wake up later than usual. A late brunch will follow. I too, will join in. The stated intent is to celebrate the beginning of a new year. Until everyone decides to go back to life as usual.
But right now, right here, waiting for the sun to rise, a passage by Paul Goodman, a writer, psychotherapist and philosopher, comes to mind, on the many kinds of silence. Because while calling it an early night on New Year’s Eve, the “He-must-be-weird” look on everybody’s faces was all too evident.
Because, isn’t this that time of the year when you party?
But then, as Goodman writes, “Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”
To get the full import of the power embedded in that passage, may I urge you to listen to it as Sir Christopher Ricks reads it out. Only somebody who understands literature and has devoted a lifetime to understanding the nuances of it can read it aloud with as much eloquence that breathe life into words.
While I haven’t read the Goodman’s book Speaking and Language in which this passage appears, it caught my attention when Maria Popova offered a pointer to it on that fine blog of hers that is Brainpickings.com. The book was first published in 1973 and I can’t seem to find it anyplace.
But in the silence of the morning on a New Year’s Day, the import of why silence is significant sunk into the mind deeper. Much of it had to do reminiscing over multiple conversations that transpired over the last year with people who are compelled to practice it. These included people who work at hospices and give a patient ear to the dying, policemen on duty who and are often at the receiving end of public ire, and restaurant managers who absorb much negative feedback from patrons.
The most significant memory though is that of a conversation with a police constable at a hospital a few months ago. He was called in by the authorities there after a young woman was wheeled in. She was declared dead on arrival by the resident doctors. Her body looked hopelessly broken.
But the constable had a duty to perform as prescribed by his manual. That included asking those who had gotten her there to describe the circumstances under which the accident occurred. Questions like was the victim under the influence of alcohol, or under treatment for any mental disorder… and other such questions that sounded intrusive and offensive to her traumatized parents and siblings in their moment of grief.
“How can he be so heartless?” they wailed. “She’s dead and he insists all these protocols be followed.”
The verbal assault that followed was inevitable. Friends and some relatives pounced on the policeman. He did not say much, but absorbed all of it. When done, he prepared his papers and handed them to the coroners. This allowed the body to be formally released to the grieving family.
“Why did you have to take so long to complete all this?” they spat at him as he walked out.
I felt compelled to follow. And ask him what went through his mind. Is this routine? Is this just another day’s job? How do you deal with it? Would he be amenable to have a cup of tea and share what may be playing on his mind?
Turns out, it was a long night for him. And a long day before that, as well. He had been on duty for at least 36 hours. An interesting conversation followed. The sum and substance of which was that people like him are trained to keep silent and maintain distance when under assault. It is drilled into their psyche. They must look at all things around dispassionately.
So, when anger overcomes him, or he may feel sadness, he is trained to ask himself in the third person, what caused the anger; when sadness floods, he asks himself, what episode triggered the sadness.
Why does he do this? By asking himself these questions in the third person he detaches himself from the sources of these emotions. He reinforces the idea that these emotions are around him but not because of him. Thus he removes himself from the emotional circumstance.
But to get anything done of consequence then, he must first surround himself with silence. And in that silence, he can distance himself from the noises that surround him, and listen in to the many kinds of silence all around.
Apparently, silence, he told me, has much to say.
When seen through the prism of the constables world of silence, Goodman’s types of silence make even more sense, and becomes easier to grasp and appreciate. Consider each of the types of silence Goodman describes and see it from the perspective of the constable investigating a death.
1.There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy;
When looked at through the grieving family’s eyes, a constable performing his task and not taking any questions is a cruel creature. His silence is borne of dumbness—or numbness, one that is lost in slumber and nothing but a function of apathy. The constable doesn’t think much of what they think of his silence. It is par for his course.
2.The sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face;
This is silence that of the kind that can be witnessed from the perspective of a neutral observer watching the constable at work. But from the constable’s perspective, this silence is much needed to get the task done.
3.The fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts;
Sober silence has a unique ability to morph into fertile silence because it can ignore the loud voices that call it dumb silence. Because it is only with sobriety that 36 hours of sleep deprivation can be set aside. There is work to do. A dead body must be studied clinically to rule out signs of foul play.
In conversing with the constable, he said the reason he signed the document that allowed the coroner to release the corpse to the mourners was because his mind was hard at work. It had to stay awake to ask if the dead woman had been pushed over the parapet of her balcony or if she had jumped off it to commit suicide.
So, the questions he asked on whether she had an alcohol problem or a medical history that required prescription drugs was to rule out foul play. When the answers were in the negative, he jotted she was of sound mind, but ruled out foul play.
4.The alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”;
In asking him how did he rule out there was no foul play, turns out, that in his silent observations, he had measured the height of the parapet she had fallen from. If pushed, her body would have been splayed at a certain angle. But if she had jumped out, the angle her body would be found in would have been very different. Experience had taught him that. But his silence also suggested she was reluctant to jump. Because after jumping, she changed her mind. He could tell this, he said, from the way her head hit the ground first as opposed to her legs.
5.The musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;
How did he keep his head when he was being abused by all and sundry for being “heartless?” Again, turns out, it was important that he did. Because if he uttered as much as a peep, it would be impossible for him to carefully absorb the noise around him. Much like silence is of different kinds, the noises speak as well. He was trying to catch the nuances of what the noises were trying to say. All of it sounded angry. But he was trying to listen carefully, to what was said, what was unsaid, and how.
6.The silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear;
And what did he hear through all those noises? He heard what nobody could. The silence of the mother-in-law and sister-in-law. He spoke of how they were teary eyed, stood as they were expected to, and accepted condolences from the neighbours and immediate family. But they were quiet. To his mind, their silence was noisy. Because to his mind, it suggested there was some tension in the family. Convention, given the part of the country they are from, suggests they must wail loudly. But they weren’t. Him keeping quiet and listening to the others speak helped him hear things nobody else could.
7.The noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it;
He figured he was on the right track when he asked somebody very quietly if there is a patriarch in the joint family. The father-in-law was there too. He too, was there, sobbing quietly. Through the man’s eyes though, the constable thought he could see anger. This was a tragedy he could have averted if he had intervened earlier and done something, absolutely anything, to defuse the tension between the women. In his silence, he was whipping himself.
The clincher for the constable, the final sign that there was no foul play was the silence on the husband’s face. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t speaking a word. Answering only in monosyllables. But it was a look of a man asking himself questions.
“Where did I go wrong?”
“Why did you have to do this to me?”
“Did I not love you enough?”
“What about our children now?”
“Why did you do this to yourself?”
9.The silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
And where does he find peaceful silence, I asked him. The veteran constable didn’t look like the kind prone to baring his soul. This once though, he did. Maybe, he was tired. Apparently, he likes it when he goes home to the woman he loves and doesn’t have to say anything. But in his silence, she knows he has come after having done his best. And without him saying anything, she knows he loves her. And she doesn’t insist he spells out in as many words.
He is content when she is content with the sound of his silence. He didn’t have much else to say. Silence followed. There is much beauty and tenderness in silence.
But how are those in slumber after having ushered in the New Year to much loud music to know that?
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